President Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency in order to build his stupid, vanity border wall is a quasi-legal, immoral act of barbarian authoritarianism. But it’s also something else: a desperate act of a desperate man who is becoming increasingly irrelevant in Washington.
Think about it this way: For two years, with his own party in control of Congress, Trump couldn’t get his border wall funded. Honestly, despite his own reports of being the most accomplished president ever, he didn’t get much else done either.
Perhaps that’s because his political capital is drained by the encroaching Mueller investigation. Perhaps it’s because he squandered much of his legitimacy by ramping up his hateful, lie-filled tirades and locking children in cages. And/or perhaps he’s simply incompetent.
Whatever the case, Trump was already increasingly marginal before the 2018 midterms, which gave us allegedly the most deeply divided Congress in history. And yet even this Congress has found something to actually unite around–in coming up with a bipartisan plan to keep the federal government open and move forward, whether Trump likes it or not.
Asked about the Democratic and Republican compromise to fund border security and keep the federal government from shutting down yet again, Trump said, "Am I happy? The answer is no, I'm not. I'm not happy." But they’re passing it anyway–including majority support from Democrats as well as Republicans. And the White House has said that Trump will sign the bill.
Now, failing to get what he wanted either from his own party or bipartisan democratic process, Trump is once again resorting to a solo temper tantrum, this time in the form of declaring a national emergency.
What’s noteworthy is that there was little back-and-forth like before the shutdown last time, when Trump’s blessing of the terms of the deal was prized by congressional Republicans. Several times, Republicans, including Trump’s own vice president, Mike Pence, came up with a proposed solution only for Trump to shoot it down–which then ended the conversation.
Now, the center of gravity has decisively shifted. Trump’s approval or disapproval of the compromise seemed irrelevant to congressional negotiators this time. They gave him something to sign that had no more money for his beloved wall. The powerful and effective leader in Washington today, especially in these behind-the-scenes machinations that actually get things done, is not Donald Trump but Nancy Pelosi.
She stood her ground during the shutdown and stood up against Trump’s wasteful and pointless border wall, and Trump caved. Pelosi even bested Trump in scheduling the State of the Union. And the American people have noticed. Trump’s approval ratings took a hit, and likely to fall further now. Pelosi’s approval ratings seem to be steadily rising.
Some credit is also due to Chuck Schumer, who proposed the bipartisan conference committee in the first place knowing that Trump would have to back whatever came out of it. Still, it’s Pelosi who seems to now define the moral spine and political acumen of Washington.
While Trump is watching Fox & Friends and tweeting, Speaker Pelosi is the one getting things done. And more and more, Washington is bypassing Trump altogether. Trump’s national emergency stunt is designed solely to please his base because they’re the only people who affirmatively care what he does anymore. Incidentally, here’s a prediction: When congressional Republicans are up for re-election in 2020, they’ll be boasting they voted for the border security compromise and will avoid talking about Trump’s emergency declaration. The president’s coattails are turning into entrails.
All of this is simply the most public culmination of what has been privately going on in Washington for some time. Last September, a senior-level White House official writing anonymously in The New York Times said that Trump’s own team is trying to “preserve our democratic institutions” by “working to insulate their operations from [Trump’s] whims.”
Around the same time, veteran journalist Bob Woodward published a book in which he reported that Trump’s National Economic Council head Gary Cohn had literally removed a letter from Trump’s desk the president was planning to sign to withdraw the U.S. from its trade agreement with South Korea.
There were reports that Trump’s military advisers were doing what they could behind the scenes to steer the ship, until Trump started publicly contradicting their advice and critiquing their expertise. Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Adm. James Stavridis praised Trump’s generals for “stepping into the breach” but added, “In the end, each of them had to ask himself, At what point does my serving in this White House become less a guardrail and more an enabler?”
This isn’t a situation of a deep state or a shadow government. This is actual leaders doing their actual jobs while the supposed President of the United States of America is increasingly, to quote The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, “irrelevant and incoherent.”
Even in declaring a national emergency, Trump may have inadvertently handed more power and relevance to Pelosi—who can force Republicans to vote on Trump’s actions if she chooses. Trump is trying to act relevant by playing the strongman. But while he’s obviously still president, and obviously still has formal as well as cultural power, he’s being marginalized by the establishment. And this next move will marginalize him even further – dragging down his numbers, pissing off Republicans in Congress, and potentially leading to a string of embarrassing court rulings. But, as they say, desperate times call for desperate measures. The same is true for desperate people. And Donald Trump is desperate.